One of the more pernicious falsehoods that pervades modern football, particularly the Premier League, is the illusion of competition. The idea that "anybody can beat anybody" in the English top flight is a self-serving fallacy, perpetrated by those who have a fundamental interest in pretending that it is so: the Premier League itself, with the help of Sky, the BBC, and various of the more reductive and boneheaded mainstream media outlets. The reasoning is simple: if the league is competitive, it is interesting. If the league is interesting, then people buy satellite subscriptions, watch highlight shows, and click onto news websites. If the league is not interesting, by contrast, they won't do any of the above, at least not to the same extent. And that would never do. Innocent business models depend on it.
Football itself - the sport considered in isolation - is quite sympathetic to the underdog. Goals are scarce and precious, and in theory, for any given match, a combination of discipline, ingenuity, and luck can help qualitatively inferior teams frustrate and topple their betters. But that only applies for a match in isolation; across a league season, when those qualitatively inferior teams have longer term goals than just this game, here and now, then other factors come into play. There is a bigger picture. And the job of a manager of a struggling team is to extract enough points from the season to see the club survive.
A cynical soul might suggest that this is the point of the vexed "strongest possible team" rule, so beloved of Ian Holloway and Mick McCarthy. That it's not about protecting the integrity of the competition, for the competition is all 38 games of the league, and it makes perfect sense for a manager to deploy his resources according to the wider priorities of the club. That the reason the Premier League compels - or attempts to compel - weaker sides to play their full-strength team every game is to preserve the integrity of the product. If the paying public thought that whenever a title-challenger lined up against a relegation-battler, the latter would play a combination of kids and reserves, they would be less interested. The appearance of competitiveness is crucial.
Be that as it may, here are some numbers for you. Over the last five seasons, the teams that have finished first and second (usually Manchester United and Chelsea, with a cameo in 2008/09 from Liverpool) have played 200 games against teams in the bottom half. Of those, the teams in the bottom half have won 11, drawn 28, and been defeated 161 times. In other words, for any game over the last five years, the top two have beaten the bottom half 80.5% of the time.
But that's how leagues are supposed to look! (Does meritocracy offend you, yeah?) Of course, the top teams should beat those near the bottom, but this is a widening gap. Compare the first five seasons of the Premier League. From 1992/93 to 1996/97 inclusive, the top two teams beat the bottom half in 65% of games, drew a further 19%, and lost the remaining 16%. So in those first five years of the Premier League, bottom-half teams got points from the top two in 35% of games; in the last five, that's nearly halved to 19.5%. By this measure, the competitiveness of the league is diminishing, and the top is getting further away from the rest.
And the underlying point is that where chances dwindle, expectations should likewise diminish. For teams in the bottom half, let alone for those in the relegation zone, these games are getting more and more irrelevant as time goes by. Soon, perhaps, they will be literally pointless.
This is not an argument for managers of weaker teams to throw games, or a suggestion that they should weaken their teams as a matter of course. It is obviously better to pursue the faint-and-getting-fainter possibility of three points, than to abandon hope all together (unless, as with McCarthy and Holloway, there's pressure from the fixture list). But assuming that the numbers hold for this season, then of the forty games that the bottom ten will play against the top two, they can expect between them 2 or 3 victories and a further 4 or 5 draws. (For illustration, last season there were 3 and 7 respectively, and in 1992/93 the top two, Manchester United and Aston Villa, drew 9 and lost 10 between them against the bottom half of a 22-team league.)
So how, by the name of great and mighty Pazuzu and all his screaming wind-demons, does the pummelling of Blackburn Rovers at the hands of Manchester City have any bearing on whether or not Steve Kean should keep his job?
You don't even need to follow the numbers. Look at the two teams. Blackburn had Robinson in goal, a back four of Givet, Samba, Dann, and Pedersen, a midfield of Petrovic, Nzonzi, Lowe, and Hoilett, and Yakubu and Goodwillie up front. City, by contrast, lined up with: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov; Yaya, Milner; Silva, Agüero, Johnson; Balotelli. There are, of course, managers who might be able to get a result out of that mismatch, and Steve Kean probably isn't among their number. Sam Allardyce is an obvious suggestion. But in this context, there is one respect in which Steve Kean can stand proudly alongside any manager in the history of the game - be it Allardyce, Arrigo Sacchi, Matt Busby, Alex Ferguson, or anybody you like - and that's this: given that Blackburn team, playing that Manchester City team, none of them would, should, or could ever be expected to get a result.
And - as inevitable as death, taxes, and falling asleep on the bus home after you've had a couple only to wake up in Penge just as it starts snowing - after the defeat, came the questions. "Does this result increase the pressure on Steve Kean?" "Is Kean's time at Blackburn drawing to a close?" "How many more results like this will Venky's put up with?" The words crisis and beleaguered - which is football media-speak for we've got him right in the crosshairs - rumbled around the back pages and airwaves, amid mutterings that the forthcoming mini-tour to India would provide a handy opportunity for a swift twist of Kean's neck.
Kean has said, of course, that his meetings with Venky's while in India will be business as usual. So let's consider what they might have discussed prior to the season, as they plotted this term's campaign. When looking at the calendar, did anybody tap their finger on the Manchester City fixtures and look meaningfully around the room? Did they mutter meaningfully: "Three points." Was this met with nods, then grins, then a volley of whoops and high-fives? Did two grown men indulge in an embarrassing chest-bump?
If they planned to get anything out of City, then they all - Kean and Venky's - need to be relieved of their duties on medical grounds, then pensioned off to a large walled compound to tend plants and live happily in institutionalised calm. But let's assume they didn't; that the game against City was viewed, realistically and accurately, as a hopeless game. It's not unreasonable to suggest, therefore, that anybody who considers the subsequent defeat to be of even the slightest use in the assessment of Steve Kean is guilty either of crass idiocy or self-delusion on a truly titanic scale.
This isn't a defence of the beleaguered manager; this is a plea for context. Blackburn managers aren't hired to beat Manchester City, and so a failure to do so should have no bearing on their job security. And the same is true, to an even greater extent, of the season's other early crisis club: poor Owen Coyle has been trussed up and left to swing in the hot breeze by a savage fixture list, despite having recorded exactly one bad result - the home loss to Norwich. "Bolton Fail To Beat Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea: World Thrown Into Turmoil; Markets Plunge; Pope Resigns."
Well, maybe not this season's Arsenal. But you take the point.
Better managers than Kean will lose to Manchester City over the next few months and seasons. Money equals power, after all, and Sheikh Mansour has spent eleventy squillion pounds buying himself a football club to crush teams like Blackburn as a matter of course (and then the rest of the Premier League and a fair chunk of Europe too, if his plans come to fruition). Kean, for all that he may be some way out of his depth, should not be judged - even partly, even vaguely - on the basis of a result that is, in terms of both Blackburn's season and in terms of his own personal competence, of vanishingly tiny import. Any proportionate match report would simply have read:
Blackburn lost. The Premier League continues. Here are your fantasy football points. Have a good day.
But the continued success of the Premier League is fuelled, in part, by a complete lack of perspective, in which the media are pathetically complicit. The incorporation of this defeat into the evidence for the prosecution is just another sad tumble around the carousel of hysterical drivel that must be kept spinning, spinning, spinning away, lest anybody get a chance to look beyond the savage and dispiriting sideshow of jerked knees, pointed fingers, and baseless, spittle-flecked invective, to the dark and rotting brand below. This league must be competitive! We keep saying it's competitive! Look, it's so gosh-darned competitive that we just got somebody sacked! Who's next?
A league stretched to irrelevance, its flaking competitive integrity daubed with coat after coat of Chicanery Gloss, gleefully serviced by a complaisant and supine media. Now that sounds like a crisis.